Ten years ago, James Gelet and three of his friends were working on a documentary about Jaws in Martha’s Vineyard. Each time the group went to a location where a scene of the original movie had been filmed—snap!—they took a photo of themselves in that spot.
During filming for the documentary, called The Shark Is Still Working, the group also traveled to New York City and Los Angeles for interviews. On their time off, the filmmakers decided, hey, why not take advantage? So they’d visit the Halloween house and the Happy Days house and—snap!—they’d grab a picture.
“Next thing you know, we had kind of a pretty good collection going,” Gelet said. “And then after that, we started just becoming a lot more intentional about it in terms of planning ahead and trying to add to this collection and really doing research as to what other locations were out there.”
In Gelet’s own words, “here’s where kind of the sad part of the whole story comes into the whole thing.”
Gelet was living in Winnipeg, Canada with his wife a couple of years back when she divorced him quite suddenly. “It left me very shaken, of course,” Gelet said. “And it left me just a very, very unhappy person for a while there.”
“But out of that came an opportunity. I thought, ‘Wow, you know, all of a sudden, here I am, I no longer have a mortgage payment, and I have a job that allows me to work wherever I go as long as I have my computer and as long as I have Internet,’” said Gelet, who works as a video editor.
So, for the past year and half, Gelet has been traveling solo across the United States, telecommuting for work, living in hotels, and snapping photos at film and TV set locations as he goes.
Last year, he began his journey in Nova Scotia, Canada—not too far from Maine—and spent four months driving west toward Seattle.
After staying with his parents during the holidays, he got at it again in January, this time heading south toward Florida. For the last four months, he’s been working his way west again.
Over the course of his travels, Gelet has driven through all 48 states that are part of the continental U.S.
“All this is is tourism, and I’m just kind of a weird kind of tourist,” Gelet said.
“I think I do it for the same reason that most people would go to the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty or Mt. Rushmore. It’s just this is a particular interest that I have. I’ve actually been to all of those places. I’ve been to the Statue of Liberty, I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and Mt. Rushmore and the St. Louis Arch. And every time I go to those places, all I think to myself is, ‘Wow, there’s that thing that I’ve seen pictures of a million times my entire life, and it looks exactly the way in real life as it looks in those pictures.’ And, believe it or not, it leaves me a little underwhelmed.
“Whereas finding these movie locations, it’s kind of like a scavenger hunt, there’s some mystery to it, I feel like I’m doing detective work in some cases. At the end of the day, like I said, all it is is tourism, but it just appeals to me specifically.”
If you head to movie-locations.com, which Gelet calls his number-one resource when he’s scouting locations for his photo collection (he also names Google Earth and Street View, IMDb, general sleuthing, and a web of friends with similar interests), you will find nearly 200 films listed—that is, just through letter “A.” So how does Gelet decide which movies and TV shows to track down locations for? Does he go to these cities, towns, and middle-of-nowhere national parks solely for their production value, or is something else drawing him, too?
“It depends on how strongly I feel about the particular movie or TV show,” he said.
“If it’s one of my absolute, all-time favorites that I just grew up on, that I’m obsessed with—like, take Star Wars, for example. Star Wars was shot in Death Valley. One of my favorite movies since I was a little, tiny kid, you know? I don’t think I ever would have made it a point to go to Death Valley just to go to Death Valley unless that one movie was shot there because I really am crazy about that movie.”
But then, he says, there are some movies that he likes, isn’t fanatical about. If he’s visiting friends or happens to be nearby, why not stop by for a photo opp?
Gelet logs some serious miles—he only stays in most locations for less than a week.
Albuquerque was different, though. About two years ago, Gelet and a friend visited the city to track down locations from the TV show Breaking Bad. Gelet recently went back.
“It’s always bugged me that there were so many locations from the show that we were never able to get,” he said. “So I took this opportunity and just kind of used it to fill in those gaps, so to speak.”
“[Breaking Bad is] so fun and so wonderfully written. It’s got wonderful characters. I think the fact that it’s in Albuquerque, that adds a lot of personality to the show. It’s almost like a character in and of itself.”
Ask Gelet how long he plans to continue this project, and he’ll say, “It’s definitely indefinite.”
“I’ve been on this whole spree for the past year and a half, loading up, going everywhere, loading up. I don’t think I will continue to do it that prolifically. I think at some point pretty soon, I will settle myself somewhere and buy a house and live a normal life and just kind of scamper off occasionally.”
It seems that the project was there right when it proved most beneficial to Gelet.
“I think going through [my divorce], the thing I needed more than anything was to be distracted. So turning my life into nothing but a series of distractions was, I think, really helpful,” he said.
“Since I was starting over in life, and I found myself with this opportunity, I thought, if I don’t do something like this now, I’ll never have the opportunity again.”
All images courtesy of James Gelet